You could hardly be human, American, and a consumer of television media in the loosest sense and have missed last week’s duel between the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Mad Money’s Jim Cramer. The battle began with a segment in which Stewart cherry-picked clips demonstrating the limited value of CNBC’s financial prestidigitation (admittedly, that’s a pretty vast orchard of cherry trees) and climaxing in an interview last Thursday wherein Stewart proceeded to administer what is widely appreciated to be a pretty vicious beating of Mr. Cramer. Stewart exacted a little vengeance for all of us, and once again confirmed his place as the sharpest social critic since H.L. Mencken.
Or not. In contrast to the Thursday smackdown, viewers have shown relatively little interest in Stewart’s interview the following Monday with General Richard Myers (USAF, ret.), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 1, 2001 until September 30, 2005. That’s unfortunate, because it’s far more emblematic of Stewart’s style, and offers a compelling argument against canonizing him quite yet.
Unlike Cramer, Myers is solid, stable, and physically appealing. He has the upright bearing of a military man and enough hours logged in a fighter jet to be cool in enemy territory. And unlike Cramer, Myers has actually caused serious and irreparable harm to his nation. In his role as the most senior military officer under President George W. Bush, he helped initiate the ongoing international tragedy that is the Iraq War, sending thousands of U.S. servicemen and women and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to their deaths, and wasting inconceivable amounts of economic and political capital.
On balance, it would be impossible to suggest that Jim Cramer has caused the Republic the tiniest fraction of harm done by General Myers. At worst, Cramer was a participant in and symbol of the unconscionable avarice which has plagued the nation in recent years. By contrast General Myers bears, as much as anyone, direct personal responsibility for the terrible catastrophe in Iraq. His errors were not common to the age in which he lives or the milieu in which he found himself.
Watching the two interviews, however, you would be hard pressed to appreciate this. With Cramer, Stewart is all attack. He keeps up a full-court press — following up on evasive statements, demanding clarification. What little conviviality Stewart displays is a tactical ploy to penetrate Cramer’s defenses. Even the format of the interview is changed; gone is the regular 7-9 minute interview segment, replaced by 30 straight minutes of classic journalistic antagonism (you can watch it in its entirety on streaming video here). By the end of it, I found myself pitying poor Cramer, whose role in the financial fiasco was, as even Stewart admits, minimal, and who proved embarrassingly incapable of defending himself, desperately trying to worm his way into the good graces of Stewart and a hostile crowd with pleas of innocence followed by mea culpas.
By contrast, Stewart’s interview with Myers is friendly and agreeable. Apart from a few cheap Cheney jokes (“When you go past his office, does like, the Darth Vader music play?”) Stewart makes no mention of the staggering geopolitical failure in which his guest had a hand. He asks no follow-up questions, even at one point allowing Myers to get away with the absurd suggestion that the White House did a serious risk analysis of the potential pitfalls of invading Iraq without offering a response of any kind. In short, he plays the role of a dupe, happily shilling for the General’s new autobiography, in which the good General presumably explains how you to can grow up to help America make big mistakes.
At first glance alone, Cramer presents an easier target. He is loud and overbearing, but his voice is high-pitched, quivering and strangely effeminate. In contrast to Stewart’s speckled gray hair -– which looks almost dignified by comparison — Cramer’s bald dome is stands out, especially when he sweats, which he did for most of the interview. His poor posture and general unkemptness leave him looking far more like a shlubby middle school teacher than the Titan of Industry we had expected would be tilting against our favorite nightly news host.
Cramer did not, by any remotely reasonable assessment of the situation, play a meaningful role in the collapse of our financial markets or the ongoing economic recession it has caused. His shtick, obnoxious and prop-heavy, was unlikely to have been interpreted by a great many people as the kind of sober, prudent advice granted by a responsible fiscal advisor, and although the economic crisis has obviously affected the stock market, it did not begin there.
Why, one wonders, does Stewart’s contempt focus on newsmen to the exclusion of the news makers? Why do Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson deserve scorn and humiliation, but not the leaders they follow lockstep on the left and right? Might it be because they offer easier and more tempting targets to Stewart, while taking aim at actual leaders might dry up his guest pool?
Stewart is angry at CNBC’s greed, foolishness, and general failure to uphold its responsibility as a news organization. So am I, so, I imagine, is most of the country. You don’t need to be William Jennings Bryan to stir up populist anger at the financial industry and those related to it. But General Myers has failed the nation far more seriously, and violated infinitely greater public trust. For Stewart to pull an Edward R. Murrow on Cramer and roll over like a puppy for Myers is indefensible.
Stewart’s feigned ignorance and self-deprecation are the tools of a talented rhetorician, dialectical pitfalls with which he traps the unwary. If he regularly displayed the level of hostility which he showed Cramer last Thursday, his interviews would be heralded, although he likely wouldn’t have many guests. But the irregular severity Stewart displays is indistinguishable from bullying, tending as it does to focus on weaker and less capable opponents, and his willingness to allow guests to use his platform to advance their causes and enlarge their pocket books belies his reputation as a cut-throat satirist in the traditions of Swift and Twain.
Stewart is an excellent comedian and legitimately sharp witted, in contrast to most of his talk show counterparts, who are simply very loud. He has a strong team of writers backing him up, and he’s supported by top-notch co-anchors. His reputation for political or personal courage, however, is entirely chimerical. Fine. As Stewart himself frequently demurs when pressed, he does ‘fake news.’ But this being the case, he ought not to be granted a reputation for ‘real courage,’ and he certainly shouldn’t be praised for standing atop the slain corpse of the ineffectual Jim Cramer.
-Daniel Polansky is a writer and editor in Washington, DC.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire